Always be more Dynamic!

Dynamics! We talk about them so often but what are they and how do we do them?

They are the markings in the music telling us to play louder or softer and they are there to help us bring the music to life. The contrasts the dynamics create bring drama and character into the pieces and help us communicate the emotions in the music. We often don’t expand our dynamics enough and end up playing mostly mezzo piano to mezzo forte because to the person playing them it can feel like you are making a huge contrast between the dynamics. To the listener though the effect is always much smaller so for dynamics to be truly effective you have to feel like you have made the contrasts too large. Both ends of the dynamic spectrum have their challenges on the oboe and hopefully some of the ideas I will talk about will help you.

The tutor book I use with my students goes through the notes in a sensible order but there are aspects of it I really don’t like. Quite early on in the book it introduces dynamics which is not really ideal as you are still getting used to trying to get a steady sound out of the oboe. I certainly don’t try and get my students learning dynamics at this point as it is far more important to gain a controlled sound early on and then you will have more control for dynamics at a later date.

What a lot of students start doing is blow really hard to play loud and tightening the mouth to play soft. Now, we do need more air to play loud but it needs to be used in the right way. We don’t just blow as hard as possible as you will lose control of the sound and really you have only got a tiny hole in your reed so not that much air can go down it.

Playing soft should not involve tightening your mouth either as that restricts the vibrations in the reed. Do you find your tuning going sharp when you try and play softly? If so you are probably tightening your mouth rather than trying to play softly using breath control.

 How should we do it then?

Well we have established what we probably have been doing and now we need to learn how we should do dynamics. This is the way I talk about it to my students as it gives them something to visualise for each dynamic which really seems to help.

 First imagine a selection of straws. (Stay with me, it will make sense in a moment!)

We need to start with a massive fat milk shake straw. Then imagine a selection of straws getting thinner until you get to one of those tiny thin ones that you get attached to drinks cartons.

Now imagine that the fat milkshake straw is ff and the thinnest is pp and then the next one up is p, the next fattest is mp, the next one mf and the one nearly as fat as the milk shake straw is your f.

When playing softly imagine you are pushing the air through the tiny thin straw. There is no point blowing hard and pushing lots of air as there is no where for it to go, remember the tiny straw has a tiny hole in it. What we need to do is push a thin stream of air through the oboe really quickly. It is the speed of the air that is really important and will make sure the notes keep sounding d don’t cut out. Remember to try not to tighten your mouth when you do play softly as this just restricts the vibrations on the reed so you will find it harder to make a really beautiful sound.

As you work your way up the dynamics you have to imagine the straw that you are blowing through gets fatter which means you can push more air through the oboe. Because you are imagining a fatter straw you start pushing more air through and this is what will make your sound louder. Remember the speed of the air will keep the sound controlled and won’t let it cut out but as you blow more air through and get louder and louder you don’t need to think as much about the speed of the air as there is so much air passing through the reed it should keep vibrating.

Now to play really loud, you are still pushing the air fast to create that lovely sound but you must also imagine that really fat milkshake straw. To play really loud we need to relax the embouchure a little which will allow the reed to vibrate more and allow lots more air to travel through the reed without it sounding restricted and without the tone becoming forced.

Keeping the sound controlled really is important at whatever dynamic you are playing and you will find that when you first start trying to do dynamics that your dynamic range is quite small. I start off getting my pupils to do hints of dynamics, they start playing a little louder and a little softer where the markings indicate and then as they improve these hints become full dynamics. The better your breathing and breath control, the better your dynamics will become.

 How do you think about your dynamics?

Do you imagine something like I do with my students and the straws? If so let me know. It’s always great to know lots of different ways of doing things! Enjoy putting lots more dynamics in your playing, be expressive and have fun!

The video I have added for this post is amazingly dramatic. It is a performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Please sit quietly and listen to this piece, think about how it makes you feel and about what it might represent. It was written as a Ballet and caused riots at its first performance, it is dramatic and exciting and a little scary for the 1st bassoonist who starts all on his own! I have set the video to start playing where the piece begins but if you want to know more about the piece go to the beginning as there is some information about the piece and the orchestra. Happy listening!

 

Listen, Listen and Listen again!

I’ve talked about this a bit in a previous blog post but it can never be said too many times…..

Its all about the details and it really is all about LISTENING!

There is so much to think about when playing music on any instrument and for us we have the added complication of the ever changing oboe reeds! When we are learning the oboe we can get so obsessed with getting the reed to work that we stop listening to ourselves.

YOU MUST ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOURSELF WHEN PLAYING!!

Listening to yourselves and really thinking about what you can hear is so important. Many of my students play to me in their lesson and make some mistakes that they could be trying to resolve before they come to their lesson. What a lot of students tend to do is just worry about the right notes and rhythms but beyond that there is sometimes not much thought. Right notes and rhythms are great and teachers do like to hear them but if we repeatedly hear more advanced students making mistakes that with some careful listening and thought they could solve on their own, we do tend to get a little frustrated.

Blips between notes, you know, those extra sounds you get between the notes we are supposed to hear, If we hear those what is it telling us? Chances are your fingers aren’t quite coordinated and so we hear a little extra note as one finger goes down a little before another. If you hear this when you are practising don’t ignore it and think,oh my teacher will sort it out’. You are all more than able to start thinking about moving your fingers so they are more coordinated, just keep listening out for the tel tail signs. If you don’t manage to solve the problem don’t worry, the point is you have tried and this will be obvious to your teacher because there will probably be some improvement even if it is not yet perfect. Teachers don’t actually mind if things aren’t correct as generally it is obvious that you have tried.

There are many reasons to listen,

  • tuning
  • tone
  • coordination
  • dynamics
  • phrasing
  • breathing

It is also a skill hugely improtant when you are making music with other people, be it with a piano accompanist, in a chamber ensemble or an orchestra. If you aren’t listening you are going to find it difficult to play well with other people. You will actually find it easier to play better in groups if you listen and follow all the other wonderful musicians around you.

Do you listen to others? I mean really listen, no background music!

Not only should you listen to yourself but you really should listen to others play as much as you can. You really can learn so much by just by listening. Now when I say listening I don’t mean pop some oboe music on in the background while you chat on your phone to friends or play computer games. I mean really listen. This means not doing anything else and just listening, something that we don’t do much of these days. The technology and the ease of finding music means there really is no excuse. I remember having to go to the local library, ordering the tape I wanted (yes… tape, not even a CD!), then a few days later going back to the collect it, heading back home and listening to it on the stereo in the corner of the room. So really students you have no excuses not to listen! Spotify, You Tube and all the others there are…. search them, find oboe music and LISTEN!

When we listen music making becomes more fun. If we are listening we can constantly strive to make a better sound, play things more in time and with better coordination, we get to enjoy the better sound we start making and the happiness of achieving the little details we once used to ignore.

Make your teachers happy, start really listening but remember listening has to be combined with thinking and analysing. When you start noticing the huge improvements you will really wonder why you didn’t always do this!

I am including two music clips with this blog post. The first is the stunning oboist Francois Leleux playing a section of La Favourita by Pasculli. This looks like it was taken in a rehearsal and is the fastest performance of this piece I have ever heard. This isn’t always a good thing but in this case he plays so well you can hear every single note clear as a bell. Not one muffled or fuzzy note. Imagine trying to move your fingers this fast and with this amount of control and coordination!

This next clip is of the two oboists I grew up listening to, Maurice Bourgue and Heinz Holliger. Both are wonderful players. Listen carefully to how they bounce musical ideas from one part to the other. They will be listening so hard in this duet to keep it tidy and precise and so that they are playing so beautifully together. Also think about breathing, there aren’t lots of long breaths so its going to be quite a tiring duet so to keep the energy throughout you have to ignore the developing tiredness, keep breathing properly and just enjoy the music!

Happy Practising everyone and just keep LISTENING!

 

 

Every piece of music tells a story.

Now answer this honestly…

How many of you have actually thought about what the piece of music you are playing is trying the express?

I suspect many of you haven’t. You focus on notes, rhythms and dynamics but beyond that do you really think about what you are trying to express or what the composer  is trying to say in the music.

When composers write their music do you think they are just coming up with a string of notes and rhythms that happen to sound good or do you think the composer was actually trying to express emotions and stories through the music they are writing? Composers are doing exactly what authors do, but composers have to tell their stories without words (unless it’s vocal of course!) Now the lack of words obviously makes the emotions and the story less obvious which means we as performers have to interpret what is on the page and make our performance portray the emotions and story.

To try and work out what stories and characters the composers were trying to tell we have to do a bit of detective work. Sometimes the title gives us a lot of information, for example, Paul Reade – Aspects of a Landscape for solo oboe has a movement entitled Birdsong etc. This particular piece gives us plenty of information and it is quite obvious what the composer is trying to depict. Benjamin Britten goes even further in the Britten 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid in that not only does each movement have a title but there is also a sentence describing them, e.g. Niobe, who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain. From this we instantly know it is a sad and very emotional piece. Many pieces don’t give us clear information so we have to use our musical intelligence.

First, look at the title and the tempo markings, these may not tell you much but they will give you a starting point. If it is a slow piece it is more likely to be an emotional piece and if it is fast it could be joyful, certainly likely to be lively, slow or fast it could be depicting something intense or dramatic. What I am trying to explain is there are no real rules, slow or fast it could depict any emotion the composer chose, so, look in more detail as we have only just started on the detective work! Look at the key, is it major or minor, does the piece keep changing key? All these things add character and personality. Play through the piece and think about what it might be depicting. I try and visualise a scene that could be going on in the music, sometimes I can be thinking of something as mad as a leprechaun bouncing around doing daft things and playing hide and seek and other pieces can make me imagine an old person remembering the things they have done in their life and the emotions those things created. Let your imagination run free and take some musical risks.

Once you start thinking about the characters and stories your phrasing will improve, you will start feeling the music and bringing it to life. This will help you communicate better in performances and will help audiences understand the music you are playing. The audience may not come away with the same stories and emotions you thought and felt when playing but that doesn’t matter, the thing you will do is shape the music in a way that will help the listener feel the music and create stories of their own.

There is so much more I could say about this but for now I just want to get you all thinking, this gives us a good starting point. Once you start thinking about the stories and emotions you will start feeling them, when you feel them you can’t help but portray them in the music you play!

Let your imaginations run wild, try different things out. Take musical risks and be expressive!

Enjoy the musical clips for this blog, one is Niobe which I talked about and is performed by Nicholas Daniel. The second clip is the Berlin Philharmonic performing Tchaikovsky : Waltz of the Flowers. Use your imaginations when listening to these pieces. In the Tchaikovsky you can imagine the flowers swaying and dancing in the garden, there is cheekiness, fun and elegance, all very different to the heart wrenching music in Niobe.

 

Workshops – I do workshops with A level aged students on musicality and performance showing how to develop their musical story telling. If anyone would be interested in finding out more about these please do contact me.